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Do your employees really understand what you do?

Within about a week now, the political ads should disappear for 10 months at least. What a relief! Based on the multitude of TV ads I have seen in various markets, I decided I liked no candidate and that no one was honest ... and that someone has too much money if they can spend on such advertising.

However, we have seen a phenomenon develop that may ultimately burrow over into the business world, too. Underlying the Tea Party movement appears to be a serious questioning of just what public officials do (elected and administrative) and how they make decisions affecting citizens. While philosophical differences certainly may be guiding much of this wide-ranging discussion, there appears to be an associated concern about the pay of private sector executives (beginning in the finance area) and an emerging and genuine concern about the widening gap between executive income levels and employee income levels. We will see more of this in the media in the months to come.

Consider the private sector - or even your company - where the management function is a widely distributed one. Many companies maintain the traditional hierarchical structure where major decision-making occurs primarily at the top, where the executive management group always has primary responsibility for the planning and much of the organizing functions of management.

So what does the executive team do to deserve that "high" income and why is its work so critical to all aspects of the company's future existence? Vision? Planning? Anticipating changes? Analysis of the current and future business environment?

Answer: All of the above, plus at least one associated role. However, do employees even understand what you do? Increasingly, they will compare what you do with what they are asked to do. Learn to share your work more.

Some 35 years ago, researchers developed a new business model and "strategic planning" immediately became a standard in every consultant's toolbox.

Prior to that time, business leaders focused primarily on short-term planning (change for next year that which we did this year) and long-term planning (more than an annual plan). With the advent of sudden and often surprising global impacts on the U.S. markets, executives sought new approaches to planning.

While there are various models of strategic planning, they all employ some variation of the "SWOT" emphases: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. (Columnist Mary Elston also referred to SWOT in the October issue.)

Amazingly, some companies have actually put aside their strategic plans in the last two years as the economy has declined. The environment both outside the organization as well as inside has changed drastically during this period. Smart organizations are using the SWOT analysis to great advantage today and Elston mentioned some uses. Change is changing and your company must use also the best tools to change.

Another action that executive teams have initiated in both large and small organizations - but then almost walked away from - is the shaping/reshaping of the company culture to assure adequate alignment with the strategic directions planned.

Every organization has a culture (usually evolved over time); it just may not be the culture that fits the needs of the company and its executive team's needs. When I walk into a business operation, or into a church or a board meeting, it is obvious that there is one best way of doing things within that group. When a newcomer enters the organization, it's like walking into a room with "cobwebs;" you learn quickly what is acceptable and not acceptable and you encounter the "cobwebs" when you deviate from the group's norms.

An executive team may be put together from within the organization and little thought be given to the company culture ... it is a given. Yet, when a new executive team is brought in, the existing company culture may well work against its plans. Culture can be a friend or an enemy to a strategic plan.

Culture can also be changed, but the change cannot happen overnight. Culture cannot be dictated, either. It must evolve, but it can be shaped in the direction needed. An illustration may be helpful to show how one company has reshaped its culture with new faces being added at the top. We can also find many examples of how it has been done poorly.

Consider Alpha-Omega Co. (a real company), which has an industrial multistate operation, as well as a headquarters and several regional administrative units, although there is no retail/service operation. It is a merger of several companies that occurred during the last seven years. However, its uniqueness is in the communication of its initially developed "mission statement" and its "statement of values and vision." While many companies have such documents, often neatly framed at the front entrance, few companies seem to weave these philosophies so well into the fabric of all operating areas. Employees are constantly made aware of "what's important here."

At most businesses I have visited, while executives were aware of what they write as a mission statement and its beliefs, few employees could tell me any of that information beyond a statement or two that they seemed to have memorized, but not digested. It is critical that the executive team identify ways in which the organization's mission (often undergoing changes) and its core values (not clearly understood by newer employees) can be spread via evangelical means throughout its operations at all levels and all divisions.

Alpha-Omega's merger partners have had quite divergent company cultures, so how has the reshaping been handled in a positive manner? A novel philosophy of "Running Right" apparently sets the company in front of its competitors.

The key is having each associate be aware of what the company stands for and the job behavior essential to both the associate's and the company's future. Annually, there are training/    discussion sessions across levels of associates to review the variables of immediate concern. Employees raise the issues. And, just recently, as part of its ongoing communications, Alpha-Omega had a feedback contest. Each employee was encouraged to look around them and find someone who embodies some aspect of the company's statement of vision and values, which is called "Running Right."

The incentive was tickets to a regional concert. Responses were received from throughout the multistate operation and from both associates and managers. In future contests, they hope for more variations in the response. Here, summarized, are a few responses:

  • "builds positive relationships, strives for perfection, encourages fellow employees, is a valued team member and always wears a smile ... makes me want to come to work."
  • "communicates effectively - sharing her opinion openly in a positive manner, keeping me (her supervisor) informed and in the loop."
  • "should receive recognition for his hard work and dedication to duties during a special project that has been difficult and time-consuming."
  • "is a role model for me. His unselfish commitment of his time and attention to making all of us better helps keep me centered and focused in my job and my life."
  • "helps build community by volunteering his time to a local organization that provides food, medical and other services to the less fortunate."

A new hire was overheard saying: "I have a job because of the people who work in other areas every day. It is refreshing to be part of a company focused on its people."

What would your employees say about others in the company living up to your statement of vision and values? You do have one, right? Go dust it off and see if it still represents the needs today ... then find unique ways to communicate the vision of where we are now headed and what the values are that will guide us. And start sharing that SWOT conclusion down the executive ladder and into the work force.

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus - international management at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail:

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.



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